Saturday, October 30, 2010

More Van Dyke Parks. In Blurt

Blurt ran my Van Dyke Parks piece on their website this week. Here it is.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Thin White Line man has left us

I just found out today that Pittsburgh lost another great performer. Bobby Porter was the singer of numerous bands, most notably Thin White Line, of which there were several different lineups. He was truly an unique fixture in Pittsburgh, a black guy hanging out at punk clubs with people who were several years - decades, even - younger than him. And singing in a voice that you'd think was closer to Otis Redding than anything else, but he was fronting a hard rock band. His voice was a force of nature.

The first time I ever saw Bobby perform was in the studio of CMU's radio station WRCT-FM. Like many of his performances, he started doing cartwheels and jumps around the room during the guitar solos. He also whipped out a pair of nunchucks (sp?) and even after he thwacked himself in the head and started bleeding, he continued to pour his heart and soul into the music as if it hadn't happened. I was 18 at the time and had never seen that type of intense focus on the music.

Bobby could be a loose cannon. I regret to this day the fact that I published a flip comment by a local musician that apparently got him clocked in the puss by Bobby. I was very young and naive and wasn't wise to the idea of things being off the record, thinking that everyone in this town got along, and it pains me to think about that. The point is, Bobby didn't take any guff and could be intense. But he was always nice to me whenever we saw each other. He had experience in the Viet Nam war so I'm sure there were demons he was battling. But he's in a better place now.

Thanks for all the great performances, Bobby, including all those a capella renditions of "Dock of the Bay" at last call. They were something.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Seeing Richard Barone & Chicago Luzern Exchange

Last week, I had two previews in Pittsburgh City Paper - a short one on Richard Barone and a feature on the Chicago Luzern Exchange. I also went to both shows, which took place last Friday and this past Monday, respectively.

Richard Barone was in what could be considered the tough position of opening for the Fleshtones and our fair city's Cynics, both of whom had drawn a pretty serious crowd to the 31st Street Pub. Armed with only his acoustic guitar and his incredible voice, he took the stage and started banging out songs from his new album, Glow. There was a good deal of chatter going on in the club (this was the kind of show where a lot of people came out of the woodwork after several months to a year of skipping shows), but an attentive crowd starting forming in front of the stage. That's where I was.

My friends Jackie and Rob showed up pretty early into his set, and they lived in the New York/New Jersey area when Richard's band the Bongos were coming up, in the early 1980s. Barone was introducing a Lou Reed cover, innocently asking, "Do you guys like Lou Reed? I want to play a Lou Reed cover." Since he seemed personable enough, I responded that it was cool, as long as he did a Bongos song too. He seemed a little gung-ho at the request, which almost cancelled out the Lou song.

I had thought earlier about which Bongos song to request, knowing that it was only him and six strings playing, so not every song could come off. "Hunting" seemed like a good one, but it turns out he plays that with a special tuning. so that was out. Jackie called for "Barbarella," which he launched into and which also seemed to kick up the energy level of the rest of his set. Along with more Glow songs, he also covered the Beatles' "It's Only Love" (excellent) and added the Bongos' fabulous "In the Congo."

The Cynics came on next and of course they tore the place up, playing some chestnuts along with songs from the upcoming album. They have a new rhythm section, both of whom sang back-up, which lead to moments when all four guys were singing. Barone joined them on a song or two, singing back-up and banging a light-up tambourine.

After them, the Fleshtones could have seemed anti-climactic, but those guys know how to put on a kick-ass show. High-kicks during songs, Mick-Jagger-on-the-TAMI-Show dance moves - they have it down. I didn't stay for their whole set, but got a good dose before I left.


When the Chicago Luzern Exchange launched into their set on Monday, it was clear that cornetist Josh Berman was exactly right in our interview: These guys have played together a lot, so even though the set was totally improvised, it felt really cohesive. They were listening closely to each other.

There were moments early on where it took a second to figure out if Berman or tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson was responsible for specific wild sounds that were emanating from the stage. Marc Unternahrer sounded impressive because he got some low growls coming out of his tuba which gave the music a great atmosphere and didn't sound flatulent (a personal issue I have with low-end brass or reeds). Frank Rosaly didn't look at his kit throughout most of the set. It almost seemed like he was looking at Unternahrer most of the time. Maybe he was, but he also had an expression on his face that proved he was listening to all the guys. He was especially fun to watch and he moved all of his kit gracefully, added and subtracted cymbals from his kit and even scraped a tiny cymbal with a fork (which wasn't exactly like nails on a chalkboard, but close; he and I talked later).

If someone wandered into this show and didn't know about the billing, they might've wondered why an imposing looking guy slowly walked onstage after about 30 minutes (I think; I lost sense of time), took off his jacket and sat down at a table onstage where there was a microphone. But the few of us there knew it was Eugene S. Robinson, singer of Oxbow, who was on a spoken word tour and was joining forces with the CLE for the night.

Robinson is a riveting performer, really bringing the characters in his story to life. In the case of what he read, though, that can be a little scary, as the story got pretty violent and gruesome before it was done. As a sidebar, it's worth noting that Robinson has garnered a rep for getting in fights with audience members who push his buttons, to the extent that people have often messed with him just to be idiots, and he puts them in their place. Nobody looked for trouble in Pittsburgh and in fact once the set was done, Robinson came off as a genuinely nice guy.

The Thunderbird crowd was pretty sparse that night, but everyone there was into what they heard. And we all bought music from the band. I was tempted to get Berman's Old Idea on vinyl, even though I have it on CD. But I opted for a couple CLE discs and Jackson's new quartet album on Clean Feed.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Back to Mono, not really by choice

Playing right now: The Joe Harriott Double Quintet - Indo-Jazz Suite
(I won this in an auction from Jerry's Records, because I heard Ken Vandermark's Harriott tribute album and wanted to hear originals. This is a little different, as the second quintet is a group playing sitar, tabla, etc. Harriott didn't write anything. It's weird, though because Kenny Wheeler's trumpet is clearly off mike.)

Our stereo - if you can call it that, in this day and age - on the first floor is slowly dying. Right now it's only playing one channel. It's not because one of the speakers is out either. (We have a set of speakers connected in the kitchen so we can hear it in both rooms, and if the left channel in the A speakers goes out, its counterpart in B will too.) Something has happened to that channel because we've had this problem before.

The only albums I can get real pleasure out of are mono ones. And it just so happens I found a mono copy of Fresh Cream at Mind Cure (the new used record store in Polish Hill) a few weeks ago. I had to buy it because the stereo pans of that album are so awful (dead channel for almost 15 seconds on "Cat's Squirrel"). And it was only $3. Plus, the original US album took off "Spoonful" and added "I Feel Free." I like both (why didn't they leave "Toad" off?!) but I have the stereo version, which restored "Spoonful" when it was reissued on RSO.

The other record I won from Jerry's was Monk in Italy. It's in stereo and the one channel makes you feel like you're sitting between John Ore's bass and Frankie Dunlop's drums: You can hear Monk and Charlie Rouse but not clearly. I have to get that thing fixed. I'm upstairs now at my 1982 Technics receiver with the direct drive turntable that loves to speed up and slow down, though it hasn't done that yet.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

CD Review: Vijay Iyer - Solo

Vijay Iyer

The Vijay Iyer Trio's 2009 album Historicity will very likely be regarded in future years as one of those albums that cut a new path for piano trios. If not, it should. Perhaps the same could be said about other releases in Iyer's catalog, but everything really seemed to line up on that album: the original pieces; reworkings of songs by Stevie Wonder, MIA and Leonard Bernstein (they played first version of "Somewhere" that didn't sound maudlin to these ears since Tom Waits did it); and most importantly the way Iyer's piano worked so well with Stephan Crump's bass and Marcus Gilmore's drums. Crump especially seemed to astound, using his instrument as a foundation that could also hold water in the realm of countermelodies.

Now the German ACT label has released Iyer's first effort where he goes it alone. A cynic - and I know at least one of them - could regard this album as a way for the hot pianist to win over a more mainstream audience. Solo albums can be easier on the ears and besides, he's frontloaded the album with more covers, starting with Michael Jackson and jumping right into Thelonious Monk, stopping on a standard before dipping into the Duke Ellington book. Four Iyer originals appear midway through the album, with one more closing it after a few more covers.

Well, I'm cynical and after listening to this album numerous times, it's clear that this is no gimmick.

If you play opener "Human Nature" for most people, there is a good chance that they won't associate it with the original, at least not for at first. Iyer begins with some moody sustain that opens up the lyrical qualities of the Thriller ballad. He also casts it in a jerky time signature that sounds like 7/8, but might have a few more alternating beats. This adds to its mysterious quality instead of weirding it up.
That time signature is also part of his take on Monk's theme "Epistrophy." Last year Ravi Coltrane did the same thing with the song. It could be that the half-step riff is a great workout at both rapid tempos and clipped rhythms. Regardless, the flurry of notes never lets up during this track and Iyer maintains a clear line of thought as his hands come close to knotting up as they play (a la Bugs Bunny. Sorry, couldn't shake the image.)

Along with "Darn that Dream" and "Black and Tan Fantasy," Solo includes a piece by Iyer's former leader Steve Coleman. "Games" has a bright melody that brings out the pianist's melodic gifts, which also reveals one of the catalysts (Coleman, that is) who might have shaped Iyer along the way. It's one of the most impressive tracks on the album too.

Of the originals, the four in a row almost act like a suite. They also incorporate disparate piano elements, from Cecil Taylor-like splatters to pensive interludes and some serious riffage. The latter is something that solo performances are susceptible to - noodling on an idea for too long without developing it. "Patterns" builds out of its namesake from an arpeggio to a structure with standard changes, and while the rapid right hand work is fun, it doesn't satisfy as much as the other tracks.

Speaking of which, I've gone through most of them individually, which might be a little excessive but I think it proves how many ideas and approaches Iyer has at a finger's length. Solo really offers an inside view of his brain, and what you see looks pretty good.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


At my dayjob, I feel pretty fortunate that my schedule doesn't require me to work closing shifts, which would have me walking out the door at close to 11 p.m. When I started there, that was often the case in the first two or three years. So when my old department asked if I could step in and close tonight, I figured, why not.

Last week, after committing, I looked in my appointment book and saw that I had written down that the New Pornographers are playing here tonight. FIE!

If I was a weasel, I could make something up, retract my commitment and go to the show. But I don't feel too weaselly these days. I guess that means I'm getting more mature, or something.

It's not as if I've missed the NPs the last few times they were here. And of course, I'm going to remind the guys at work about this until the day I die.

Monday, October 18, 2010

CD Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman - Dual Identity

Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman
Dual Identity
(Clean Feed)

Now that Rudresh Mahanthappa's CD with fellow alto saxophonist Bunky Green has hit the streets, it's starting to generate some buzz, (JazzTimes flagged it on the cover of the latest issue, using the word "collab," no less. Zheesh.) That meeting of two generations of altos deserves some kudos, but a few months ago this release of two almost-peers hit the street and deserves equal amounts of attention.

Pairing up Mahanthappa and Lehman (leader of the octet released the amazing Travail, Transformation and Flow last year, and one-third of Fieldwork) can feel like the equivalent taking two very knowledgeable music enthusiasts, pumping them full of strong coffee and getting them to verbally expound on musicians that are meaningful to them. In other words, both of them have such astounding technique that their ideas come forth in fast, knotty ways in an endless flow that both complement the other one and make it sound a little busy. Sometimes "Duel" Identity might seem more appropriate since it feels like friendly sparring at times.

The horns aren't severely panned to separate channels, nor does the cover give a clue as to which alto player is which. And frankly, that who's-who intrigue keeps the album a little more interesting.

Some tracks use their leaders' astounding technique cleverly, such as "Foster Brothers," whose main riff has the illusion that it's about to shift into double-time, only to be snapped back into half-time, thanks to a tricky time signature. The time and changes of "Post-Modern Pharaohs," on the other hand, sounds a little rigid, like the band can't really relax. Casual listening is out, studious listening is required.

Somewhere I'm sure a reviewer is comparing this alto summit to the work of Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who explored similar territory with M-Base back in the '80s. (Mahanthappa has talked in print about Coleman's influence on his work.) Knowing that music only in passing, it's hard for me to draw a direct parallel, but the style of the rhythm section points that way too. Liberty Ellman (guitar), Matt Brewer (bass), and Damon Reid (drums) hold this music down tightly, allowing pretty of room for the altos to run wild - as well as Ellman who is a natural for this music. Sometimes it feels like they're really itching to break into a funk riff if only the tune would let them. On the other hand, the band reveals shows their grace and skill with a ballad ("Katchu," Ellman's one composition) and a short tone poem ("Resonance Ballad"). These different nuances make this album one that keeps begging for repeated listens that will yield new discoveries.